Beda: A Journey to the Seven Kingdoms at the Time of Bede

Beda: A Journey to the Seven Kingdoms at the Time of Bede

by Henrietta Leyser


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781781853870
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 944,536
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Henrietta Leyser is a historian who specializes in the history of medieval England. She is the author of Medieval Women.

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A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede

By Henrietta Leyser

Head of Zeus Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Henrietta Leyser
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78185-387-0



At that time, Aethelberht, king of Kent, was a very powerful monarch. The lands over which he exercised his suzerainty [sic] stretched as far as the great river Humber, which divides the northern from the southern Angles. [Book I, Chapter 25]

Kent is 'the land at the edge' or the 'cornerland of England': this is the etymology of its name and it was this position that made the region at times vulnerable, at times prosperous (and sometimes both) and explains why it was here that monks landed in 597 on their mission to restore Christianity to England.

By 409 or 410, when the Roman occupation of Britain came to an abrupt end, the elite of Kent had already accepted the Christian faith, but except in pockets here and there little of this new religion survived the arrival in England of those pagan newcomers we now call the Anglo-Saxons. According to Bede, the first of these peoples came at the invitation in the mid-fifth century of the Briton Vortigern in order to help him against attacks by Picts, and it was Vortigern who settled them in Kent. However, it was not long before further, now unwelcome, contingents arrived, so that 'the number of foreigners began to increase to such an extent that they became a source of terror to the natives who had called them in' [I, 15].

Bede calls the leaders of the original Kentish contingent the brothers Hengist and Horsa. Long consigned to the realm of legend, Hengist and Horsa remain an intriguing pair, since their names in Old English mean 'stallion' and 'horse'. Horses were important creatures in Germanic paganism and it is noticeable how, in the conversion of England to Christianity, a number of pagan traditions were appropriated rather than expunged. The genealogies of rulers are but one such example; in this instance, pagan gods with seeming ease become the forefathers of Christian rulers. Thus in Bede's genealogy for Kent, Hengist becomes the forefather of Eormenric, who himself fathered King Aethelbert, a key figure in the conversion story.

With Eormenric we may already have moved from legend to history: the Frankish component of Eormenric's name, 'Eormen', points to those connections which made Kent prosperous as well as politically vulnerable. Excavations of literally hundreds of sixth-century Kentish graves have revealed the new influences on the fashions of the well-dressed Kentish woman of the day, her jacket fastened with as many as four brooches, with accoutrements of great strings of beads and gold-brocaded veils. At the same time, excavations also suggest there were others in Kent who, less keen on such Frankish ostentation, buried their dead using boat planks to cover the body – a forlorn attempt to keep alive North Sea traditions threatened now by these new trends.

In the late sixth century and early seventh century, during the reign of King Aethelbert, cultural change was intensified and sharpened by the Christian challenge. How and why England again accepted the religion of Rome will be a constant theme in each of our seven kingdoms. At the same time we need to note how it was the adoption of Christianity that gave cohesion to these new kingdoms. Each was shaped from a patchwork of different peoples; some proved better than others in their stitching, but in every case it was the role of the new faith and the work of its missionaries that was crucial.

Let us move on to the year 596, to a place in what is now the south of France (but at the time was still called Gaul). A group of around forty monks have halted their journey. On the orders of Pope Gregory the Great, these monks had set out for England on a mission to convert its pagan inhabitants to Christianity, but they have somehow lost any enthusiasm they may once have had for the project. Bede offers an explanation for their change of mood: 'They ... had already gone a little way on their journey when they were paralysed with terror. They began to contemplate returning home rather than going to a barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation whose language they did not even understand' [I, 23].

The long-held assumption that it was the thought of the English which so terrified the missionaries has in recent years been challenged; the convincing alternative is that it was the state of Gaul following the death of King Childebert which really unnerved Augustine and his men. But in any case, Gregory was adamant: the mission must proceed. Even before he became pope, Gregory had (so the story goes) set his heart on the conversion of the English after a chance encounter with English slave boys for sale in Rome; such boys, he had punned, are not English (Angli) but angels. Now, under the command of Augustine, future bishop of Canterbury (Augustine himself was never an 'archbishop'), the mission to England was ordered to proceed.

In 597, the party crossed the Channel, possibly embarking close to Boulogne in boats the monks themselves (possibly) help to row. But whatever the chosen route, we know the landing place was the Isle of Thanet in Kent. Here King Aethelbert detains the monks until he has had the opportunity to meet and interrogate them. Aethelbert is no stranger to Christianity. His wife, Bertha, is a Christian Frankish princess – but tolerating the creed of a foreign bride is of a different order from allowing into his kingdom preachers intent on subverting (as Bede puts it) 'beliefs which ... the whole English race have held so long' [I, 25].

Just what these 'old beliefs' were is hard to ascertain, since Bede himself has no interest in telling us. But thanks to Pope Gregory's conciliatory attitude (and contrary to his original intentions), pagan strongholds in England were gradually transformed instead of being obliterated, and a process of adaptation rather than simple repression was encouraged. 'Doubtless', wrote Gregory, in justification of his policy, '[it is] impossible to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds' [I, 30]. In this way England kept its days of the week named after pagan gods and goddesses: Tuesday after Tiw, a god of victory; Wednesday after Woden, an ancestral god; Thursday after Thor, the god of thunder; Friday after Frig, a fertility goddess. Place names across England suggest such gods had many shrines, some of which, in accordance with Gregory's instructions, were adapted for Christian use: 'Take holy water,' the pope instructed, 'and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them' [I, 30].

Thanet, where Augustine landed, was almost certainly the site of a cultic sanctuary, a place that belonged to Thor. What happened next may owe more to literary invention than to 'reality': Aethelbert's marriage to Bertha almost certainly meant that Christianity was not a strange creed to him, but the arrival of the missionary party was nonetheless momentous, heightened in Bede's version.

Here, Aethelbert keeps the missionaries on the Isle of Thanet while he considers what to do about their arrival. He decides he will meet them, but only in the open air rather than in any building, lest the missionaries practise magical arts and bewitch him. The meeting is thus presented as a risk. But it proceeds well: the missionaries approach with due ceremony. They pray for the king. At his command, they sit and give a sermon. The king is reassured; the missionaries are offered hospitality and they are allowed to preach. Pope Gregory's long-planned mission can now get underway.

But despite notable successes in the early years, the conversion of the whole country nevertheless takes time – kingdoms convert, relapse and convert anew. Old beliefs and customs die hard, and it would take many decades before England could be considered even nominally a Christian country.

The first record we have of laws demanding Christian practices and punishing heathen sacrifice comes from King Wihtred of Kent just under a hundred years after Augustine had first landed. By that time Kent had lost its pre-eminence as a kingdom, though even during its most troubled periods its possession (achieved, as we shall see, by chance) of the chief see of the country remained a source of strength.

It is here, then, with Canterbury that our journey should begin.


So he [King Aethelbert] gave them a dwelling in the city of Canterbury, which was the chief city of all his dominions; and, in accordance with his promise, he granted them provisions and did not refuse them freedom to preach. [I, 25]

Before the departure of the Roman legions in 409 and 410, Canterbury had been a magnificent walled city made up of fine houses, baths and temple precincts. Excavations have shown how quickly over the fifth century the infrastructure of the city had crumbled and the extent to which buildings and streets had fallen into disrepair. The sound and sight of the Christians as they approached this now rather desolate settlement would have been striking: Augustine and his party carrying before them (or so Bede tells us) a silver cross 'as their standard' and an icon of Christ painted on a board. It is likely that this novel-looking party headed for some sort of reception in the old Roman theatre – a huge building originally built to accommodate an audience of around 7,000. Even in a dilapidated state the theatre would have provided an impressive setting; possibly it is where Aethelbert was used to holding court. We should nonetheless be wary lest by following Bede we imagine that after some triumphant meeting all Augustine needed to do was to convert the king, restore Canterbury's former glory and confirm its foreordained destiny as the chief see of the English church. The reality is not so simple.

When Pope Gregory the Great dispatched his mission, it is most unlikely that he could have imagined Canterbury as the headquarters of his Christianised England. Gregory's conception of the country is likely to have been based upon knowledge of the arrangements in place under the years of the Roman occupation. To Gregory's mind, the obvious centres were therefore London and York. In his letter of 601 to Augustine, the pope is very clear on this point. He expected the archbishops of London and York each to have twelve bishops working under them; whether London or York was the chief see would, he imagined, depend on the relative seniority of the two archbishops at any given time. The primacy which Canterbury finally came to enjoy over York depends upon a tangled and complex story that rumbled on well into the twelfth century, but notably, at no point were claims by London ever part of the argument. From the moment of his arrival in England in 597, Augustine, in partnership with Aethelbert, had made Canterbury the centre of his mission. The case was perfectly straightforward: Aethelbert was at the time the most powerful king in the land and London was not part of his kingdom. Nonetheless, it is striking that Bede calls both Canterbury and London a 'metropolis' – an appellation he gives no other English town.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral, as built by Augustine, is hard now to reconstruct. Much extended throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, it was utterly burnt to the ground in 1067, and recent archaeology has posed as many questions about it as it has provided answers. However, it now looks as if the cathedral was erected on a new site (albeit using ancient stone) and that the intention was not to restore what was left of Romano-British Christianity but rather to recall the topography of Pope Gregory's Rome – hence the dedication to 'the holy Saviour, our Lord and God Jesus Christ' in imitation of the Lateran basilica, with a 'matching' church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul built (as at Rome) outside the city walls. In conformity with Gregory's instruction to Augustine (that he and his fellow missionaries should live together, following the precepts of Acts 4: 32), the cathedral was from the start intended to provide for a monastic community with a cloister, dormitory and refectory adjoining its north side, albeit with a supporting staff of married clergy and a separate house in the city for the archbishop. (On one notable occasion, St Augustine's successor, Archbishop Laurence, while he was preparing to leave Kent to escape the pagan rule of Aethelbert's son, King Eadbald, slept overnight in the cathedral itself. A vision of St Peter woke him. Peter chided the archbishop for his cowardice and scourged him for dereliction. The episode made so great an impression on Laurence that he decided to stay in the country while King Eadbald, on seeing the wounds made by the scourge, was persuaded that the time had come for him to convert.) A further church, the church of the Four Crowned Martyrs, also echoed the topography of Rome, where a church of the Four Crowned Martyrs stood near to the Lateran. Tradition held that the four martyrs (victims of the Diocletianic persecution of the late third century) had been stonemasons, so honouring them in Canterbury at a time of energetic stone-building may have seemed particularly propitious, all the more so when their church withstood a raging fire (even as Bede attributes the miracle to Mellitus – then Canterbury's bishop – rather than to the martyrs' powers of protection).

Shortly after Bede's death, a free-standing baptistery was added to the eastern end of the cathedral by Archbishop Cuthbert (740–60), an unusual feature in England but which again had a parallel in the Lateran baptistery at Rome. Over time, the power and prestige of the cathedral enabled it to furnish the crypt (a ring-crypt of a type found in Rome) with the bodies of a number of the most famous of all Anglo-Saxon saints, including those of Fursey of Crowland (whose life Bede describes with admiration) and Wilfrid of Hexham (whom Bede seems to have viewed rather more critically.) In Bede's own day, however, Canterbury's lustre was provided by the legacy of Theodore, consecrated archbishop in 668. The choice of Theodore was as surprising as it was inspired. A Greek monk, born in what is now southeastern Turkey, Theodore was already in his sixties when he set out for England (and even then he was kept waiting four months on the far side of the Channel while his hair grew, so that he could be tonsured in a manner acceptable to the English.) It was Theodore who gave structure, doctrinal orthodoxy and learning to the embryonic English church. 'To put it briefly,' wrote Bede, 'the English Churches made more spiritual progress while he was archbishop than ever before' [v, 8].

St Martin's

What signs, if any, did Augustine find of the survival of British Christianity? This is a much-debated point, but in any case Christianity cannot have been an entirely unknown religion; for one thing, provision had had to be made for Aethelbert's queen, Bertha, to attend services. These were evidently conducted by her Frankish chaplain, Liudhard, in an old Roman church dedicated to St Martin that stood outside the city walls. This church was now offered to Augustine and his followers for their use while their new premises were being built. Today, St Martin's still contains some seventh-century work – it is possible that those parts of the south and north wall that are made of Roman brick could well have been there in Bertha's time. Certainly the church, situated to the east of the city, fits Bede's description of the place where Augustine and his monks met to say masses, to sing psalms, preach and baptise until such time as Aethelbert himself converted, whereupon they were allowed greater freedom of movement. The dedication of the church to St Martin gains interest when placed besides accounts of the devotion of Bertha's Frankish mother to St Martin at Tours itself, where Martin (d. c.397) lay buried. It would seem highly probable that Bertha, sent away to marry 'a man from Kent' – in the words of Gregory, the sixth-century bishop of Tours – would have sought consolation in fostering in her new country the cult of a saint with familial associations, since saints in the Middle Ages were both 'the friends of God' and of those who prayed to them on earth.


Excerpted from Beda by Henrietta Leyser. Copyright © 2015 Henrietta Leyser. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Welcome Page,
A Note to the Reader,
Selected Chronology,
The Kingdom of the East Angles or East Anglia,
The Kingdom of the East Saxons or Essex,
The Kingdom of the South Saxons or Sussex,
The Kingdom of the West Saxons or Wessex,
Further Reading,
About Beda,
About Henrietta Leyser,
An Invitation from the Publisher,

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